Chris Rock jabs at the image problems tied up in Good Hair 

Chris Rock's specialty has become acerbic observations and tart one-liners about serious matters, particularly life-or-death questions of race and class. From discussing differences between life in the inner city and the suburbs to the resources available for kids at public schools vs. private ones, saving some of his choicest barbs for how blacks and whites (and blacks and blacks) interact, Rock has never found an ill or taboo that didn't lend itself to his mix of cutting commentary and comedic rejoinder.

Whether you consider his approach sharp or superficial will color your view of Good Hair, his 95-minute riff on a hot-button premise—that many black women (and some men) have their entire self-image tied up in their hairstyle. Rock's asserted in multiple interviews that he was moved to make the documentary when his daughter asked him why she "didn't have good hair"—this after spending time with white friends who had long, straight hair.

Directed by Jeff Stilson, Good Hair interweaves statistical breakdowns and factual segments with Rock's interviews, commentary and asides. He visits salons and barber shops, dips a spoon in a vat of hair-relaxer chemicals,travels to India tracing the principal sources for the hair used in weaves and wigs, and spends a healthy portion of the film covering the famed Bronner Brothers hair show in Atlanta—a winner-take-all competition that combines modeling, entertaining, visual flair,and performance wizardry and artistry.

As Rock digs at the issue's roots, his attitude and demeanor range from curt to bewildered, confident to dismayed. Tossing off nightclub-act asides such as, "Every black man knows you can't touch a black woman's hair," he'll then speculate why Asian entrepreneurs have become dominant figures in the $9 billion black hair-care market—an insight that prompts the Rev. Al Sharpton to remark, "We don't even control something we're the only ones using." Rock puts the economic question even more bluntly to the few black merchants represented in the Bronner Brothers' vast product showcase: "So what percentage of all this is black-owned—10 percent, 5 percent?"

In this vein, Good Hair makes many valid points, from spotlighting the willingness of people with modest means to pay big money for special treatments ("$1,000 for a weave?") to the impact these attitudes have on children,something Rock discussed recently on Oprah without a hint of amusement. "This whole kiddie perm thing needs to be stopped immediately," he demanded, adding that "the main thing I wanted to do with this movie is convince black women that whatever they want to do with their hair is fine, that you should do what makes you feel good, not be concerned about what white people think or what some man thinks."

Ironically, filmmaker Regina Kimbell has filed suit against Rock and HBO Productions, claiming she screened her 2006 documentaryMy Nappy Roots for him on the set of his former TV show Everybody Hates Chris and that he stole the idea. A federal judge refused to block the film's Oct. 9 limited or Oct. 23 general openings, and thus far the story hasn't gotten much traction or notice except on a few black websites.

In a sense, though, even that shows what Rock and the women in his documentary are up against: the narrowest, least inclusive conception imaginable of the mainstream—of what constitutes either news or beauty. Some critics and commentators have accused Rock of mocking and ridiculing black women, and of trivializing the historical and psychological impact of slavery and racism embodied by the issue.

But it's obvious from the film how much Rock adores and admires black women, particularly his wife and daughters. He's a comedian, not a social scientist, historian or cultural activist, and he's obviously aimed his inquiry where he thinks it'll do the most good: at general audiences, right down to recruiting such celebrities as Nia Long and Salt-N-Pepa for segments. Rock clearly understands how much the term "good hair" is rooted in traditional (i.e., white) views about beauty. He may not beholding a placardor waving his fist in the air, but Good Hair amounts to a good-natured manifesto that "natural is beautiful."

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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